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How To Fussy Cut Fabric Motifs & More

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There’s something about the word fussy that sounds negative. We assume it means someone or something is being difficult, like a toddler turning up her nose at broccoli or the lawnmower that won't start unless you first pull the cord halfway and stand on one foot. But, words mean different things depending on the situation, and in the world of sewing, fussy can be a compliment and a fussy cut is a beautiful thing. 

When you spot something within a fabric's motif and decide to cut it in a way that will precisely capture a specific section for a specific purpose, that's called fussy cutting. This includes when you meticulously line up a fabric's pattern so you don't see a seam, maintain a fabric’s print around a shape, or cut and re-sew pieces of fabric to create a "new" print. This perfect placement is often what creates the "WOW" factor in a project. 

Whatever you choose to call it, using and/or manipulating a fabric’s print to add appeal and interest to your sewing projects is a great skill to have in your sewing arsenal. In the Sew4Home studio, we love to fussy cut... because we love fabric! We know how important it is to showcase a fabric's design in order to bring out its depth and interest. Sometimes, fussy cutting may be just the remedy needed to turn a run-of-the-mill fabric into one that is awe-inspiring. Other times, it’s the inherent drama of fabric that leads to our ideas. 

As we looked closer into this subject in preparation for our tutorial, we discovered an interesting perspective from a quilter who does not like the term fussy. She described the technique as more of a "mood" you have when cutting fabric – a mood that becomes a creative vision. If you'd like to start calling it "mood cutting," you go right ahead.  

Why fussy cut?

Depending on the type of sewing you like to do, fussy cutting can mean different things. Below, we briefly explain how fussy cutting applies to making quilts, how it’s used in home décor, and where you see it in garment and accessory construction. Fussy cutting is also a big part of scrapbooking, for those of you who have this addiction.

Quilting

Our quilting friends provide us with quite a few tips and tricks that can be re-purposed for other types of sewing. Fussy cutting is on this list. As you will read in the section below on tools, the quilt section of your local fabric shop or online retailer is the place to turn for helpful fussy cutting aids. There are specific types of quilts where fussy cutting is a must, such as I Spy, Attic Windows, or Kaleidoscope quilts. However, most quilters will tell you they fussy cut just about anything if it’s going to add the touch of pizzazz they're looking for in their selected quilt block/pattern. 

Home Décor 

As we mentioned above, in home décor sewing, fussy cutting is a must-do for many items. You probably have numerous examples in your own home. Go ahead and take a look around. We’ll wait here.

Many home decorating fabrics have large prints, because they are used on large items, such couches and curtains. Anyone who tries his or her hand at upholstery quickly learns how important it is to center a design motif or stripe. For example, striped fabric should line up on a chair back and seat, which means the pieces must be cut to insure the stripe is continuous.

Many times, a fabric's design is ideal for making a statement. All you might need to create a dramatic pillow is one amazing motif centered on the front panel. A similar effect can be acheived by positioning a number of smaller motifs to build a larger design.


Garments and accessories

If garment construction is your passion, you may already be aware of matching plaids and stripes. That’s considered fussy cutting too. Many of us who sew take pride in the fact that we carefully match a stripe at the side seams of a garment, outshining much of what you find in off-the-rack clothing. 

The popular large-scale prints we talked about for home décor are also popping up more often these days in garments, and they can make a stunning statement. However, you have to use them in the right way so their placement doesn't end up looking odd when you put it on! Fussy cutting the pattern pieces is the key to maintaining the motif, and especially the placement, such as on the back of a tunic, or bottom edge of a skirt.

Accessories nearly always feature fussy cutting because their very nature is to be a featured accent to your outfit. We especially love being creative with how we place motifs on the panels that make up bags and totes. In fact, one of our favoite things is to perfectly match a bag's pocket to the background it sits on. You can learn more about this specialized fussy cutting technique in our pocket-matching tutorial

Appliqué

Appliqué is the process of sewing a smaller piece of fabric onto the surface of another fabric, either using a sewing machine or by hand. Until now, you may have been under the impression that the only reason to fussy cut fabric was for appliqué. This is because using a fussy cut piece of fabric is what appliqué is all about! 

There are different ways to approach an appliqué. It can be very basic: you fussy cut a flower from a large-scale print and appliqué to a pillow. Or, it can be what’s considered an "appliqué project" in which you build a picture using small fussy cut pieces. Learning to appliqué is a technique in and of itself. You can learn more about this technique in How to Appliqué Like a Pro.

Fabric repeat and preprinted panels

We realized in order to effectively discuss fussy cutting, we have to address two terms related to fabric: repeat and preprinted panels

Whenever you see the word "repeat" in relation to a fabric print, it means the distance from the end of one motif to the beginning of where it repeats itself. The repeat can be across the fabric width (horizontal repeat), down the length (vertical repeat) or both.

If you’re not provided with the repeat information, you can measure it yourself. Of course, some fabrics are easier to see the repeat on than others. In our example below, we were able to identify the repeat clearly, based on the different style mustaches on this Alexander Henry fabric.

The vertical repeat was approximately 23".

The horizontal repeat was approximately 27”

Why is this important to us in fussy cutting? Because if you want to feature a single repeat, you need to know if you will be able to use the entire repeat in the allotted space. In other instances, as we mentioned above, you want to match a repeat for a continuous design around a shape or in a seam. If you’re designing a project from scratch, sometimes you use the repeat of the design as your beginning measurement, such as when creating a quilt block. Depending on your creative vision, you may even want the single repeat to be the entire project. When we were presented with fabric that had typewriters printed across it, we decided to use one repeat to make our Cedar Sachets For Closet Or Drawers

Preprinted panels are usually designed to be, or to facilitate, quick projects. Often, the pattern pieces and instructions are printed right on the fabric. However, you can ignore the preprinted project and simply use the panels for fussy cutting. They’re ideal since the borders are already marked for cutting. We used this approach in our super fun Halloween Mr Bones Pillow

Tools for making a fussy cutting "window"

Time for the fun part of fussy cutting: actually looking for the portion of the design you want to cut out. To help you visualize, you need a window. A window? Yes, a window. It’s not always easy to isolate a portion of a fabric’s print, especially if it’s very busy, unless you block out the adjacent areas. So, you create a window to look through.

There are a number of ways to create a window for fussy cutting. Below is a list of official tools you can use, some of which you may already own. There are also plenty of items around the house you can try. And, we've included some additional tools that make the job of cutting easier.

Official tools you can purchase

Fussy cutting rulers – We found rulers designed specifically for fussy cutting, including a larger size that would be great for the big home décor motifs.

Fussy cut templates – There are hard plastic templates made just for fussy cutting various shapes. These are a good investment if you plan to use a certain shape over and over again.

See through rulers– Besides the examples above, there are literally dozens of see-through quilt rulers you can use for fussy cutting (in addition to their intended measuring purposes). 

Basic quilt templates– Usually located near the quilting rulers, you can find clear quilt templates that can be used for fussy cutting and/or cutting shapes in general.

Template plastic– Another readily available item is clear plastic you can draw on and cut, just as you would pattern paper. Using template plastic is ideal for a project that requires you to cut the same shape over and over again, where paper would not be durable, especially if you’re using an odd shape, such as a flower or an abstract item.

Items you can use from around your home 

Since we’re always budget conscience, we’ve seen examples where fussy cutters have used one or more of the items listed below to make a window.

Tape– Simply use a heavy tape on your fabric to create a window. We recommend masking or painters tape.

Cardboard or cardstock– You probably have some perfectly good cardboard or cardstock in your recycling bin right now that you could use to fashion a window. Some people prefer this option, as they can completely customize the size and shape. 

Freezer or Parchment Paper– The technique is similar to the cardboard described above, but this sturdy paper option can be easier to work with. 

Cutting tools and other items you’ll need

Step one is the isolating; step two is cutting. You don't have to own all the items below, but they are helpful.

Rotary Cutter– Cutting around a shape can be easier to do with a rotary cutter than with scissors.

Cutting Mat– If you use a rotary cutter, then you need a cutting surface. You can’t have one without the other!

Interfacings – Depending on the type of fabric you’re fussy cutting, you may want to interface the area first. This helps with fraying, and is an especially good idea for loosely woven fabrics that you plan to appliqué. The type of interfacing you select should be appropriate for your fabric type.

Fusible web or spray adhesives– Whenever you fussy cut, especially for appliqué, you need some way to temporarily hold the piece(s) in place. A fusible web, or temporary adhesive, is perfect for the job. 

NOTE: Most appliqué projects use a fusible web onto which the designs are first traced and then fused to the wrong side of your fabric – remember you have to work in mirror image! Don't forget to check out our Appliqué Tutorial

Pattern paper– We recommend always having a roll of pattern paper in your sewing toolbox. Patterns can be expensive, and tracing the piece you need on pattern paper first, not only gives you a pattern you can write on and adjust, it also keeps the original pattern in better condition so you can use it again. As we mentioned above, you draw or trace a print, stripe, etc. onto a pattern so you can match a motif along a seam. 

AccuQuilt and other die-cutting machines – These tools are designed to cut multiple layers of fabric into specific shapes using dies. They also offer clear templates for fussy cutting. We also love the Artistic Edge System

Light box– If you want to make the investment, this is an invaluable tool when doing appliqué and/or fussy cutting. Of course you can use Mother Nature for free: simply hold up what you want to trace against a window.

Marking pens, pencils, or chalk - You should have one or more of these in your sewing box already. They are mandatory if you choose to mark your fabric and cut it with regular scissors.  

Let’s fussy cut!

In the following steps, we show you a few different methods for fussy cutting. Regardless of which method you choose, always be aware of your seam allowance! This is especially important if your fussy cutting is going to be used in something other than appliqué.

Using a quilt ruler

To use a gridded quilt ruler, you have to know how to read the markings. Some come with instructions, but on others, you just need to look very closely to see all various markings provided. 

We want to cut the following medallion from our fabric. 

After moving our square quilt ruler around a bit, we decided to cut ¼" from each side edge of the medallion. Looking closer at the motif's measurements, we realized it was a bit more of a rectangle than a square. If it had been a true square, we may have decided to work from the center of the flower instead.

Take note of the measurements where you positioned the ruler in order to cut the other half of the square in the following steps.

Using a rotary cutter, cut along the right side and top of the square ruler.

Flip the ruler and reposition it (¼" from each edge as above) to cut the left side and bottom of the square. 

Here’s our fussy cut medallion.

Using a template

The difference between using a fussy cut template and a quilt ruler is the fact the template has a cutout, so you can isolate what you want to fussy cut without the measuring involved when using a ruler. The template itself is a predetermined size, so you simply go from there. 

Place the template over the design.

Using a rotary cutter, slowly and carefully cut around the edge of the template. We used the outside edge, you could also trace and use the inner edge.

Here’s our new fussy cut flower.

Using a plain ol’ pair of scissors

Of course, you can always simply cut around a shape or design with a small pair of sharp scissors.

Using pattern paper 

This fussy cutting technique is also called "pattern matching" and is used most often for large pattern pieces that will be sewn together, such as in a garment, window treatment, etc. It's a technique that takes some practice to master, but our example is a simple one that clearly explains the general objective. As we discussed above, we recommend tracing your pattern pieces onto pattern paper so you can mark the pattern as needed and not compromise the original. We chose a striped fabric because it was the easiest for our explanation, but the same approach will work for a plaid, a floral, or any other motif. Actually tracing portions of the print onto the pattern piece is how you match the print at adjoining seam lines. Again, we must stress the importance of remembering to account for your seam allowance!

Trace the required pattern pieces. In our example, we are tracing a skirt pattern and want the stripe to match (or continue) at the side seams.

Position the skirt front on the fabric, following grainline recommendations.

With a regular pencil, colored pencil, or even a crayon, trace a portion of the fabric’s print, in our case a stripe, along the seam line where you want the fabric to match. 

Before cutting, place the skirt back pattern piece next to the skirt front piece, lining up the side seams as if you were going to sew it.

Continue marking the fabric’s print on the skirt back pattern piece.

Cut out the skirt front.

Lay the skirt back pattern piece on the fabric, using the traced pattern to match the print. Don’t forget about the grainline on this side too.

Cut out the skirt back.

When you pin the pieces together for sewing, the pattern should match up perfectly! 

NOTE: Sometimes, depending on fabric type, it helps to use an Even Feed (or Walking) foot, or your machine's built-in fabric feeding system, to keep the layers in position. You can also hand baste the pieces first to make sure you’ve properly matched the fabric print before final sewing.

Sewing your fussy cut fabric

Eventually, you will sew your beautifully fussy cut fabric. Depending on the project you're making, you will either sew the fussy cut fabric as you would any other piece into a seam, or you will use an appliqué method. We assume you’ll use a sewing machine (rather than hand stitching), so we wanted to briefly discuss stitches, sewing machine feet, thread, and needle size and type.

If you’re sewing the fussy cut piece into a project, you will most likely use a straight stitch and a standard foot. Simply set the stitch length according to the fabric and use the appropriate thread and needle for the fabric. 

If you will be appliquéing your fussy cut piece, you have some choices to make about stitch selection. You can use a straight stitch if you want a “shabby chic” or “raw edge” look, but a zig zag stitch is most commonly used for this technique. Adjusting the width and length can alter the stitch appearance from a dense satin stitch to a tiny zig zag. In addition, your machine may have specific stitches for appliqué. Review your machine's settings prior to starting an appliqué project. If you need assistance, consult your sewing machine retailer or instruction manual. Below are some examples of stitches we like to use.

You may also have a selection of presser feet designed for appliqué. Our studio machines are provided by Janome, and we have a few different clear feet and/or open toe feet that enable us to clearly see where the needle is penetrating the fabric as we sew. These are the ones recommended for appliqué: Satin Stitch Foot, Open Toe Satin Stitch Foot, and an Appliqué foot.

Again, remember to review the appropriate thread as well as the needle size and type for the fabric you’ve selected.

NOTE: Don't forget to check out our Appliqué Tutorial

Alternate sewing method

Using your sewing machine to isolate a motif is an option too. We decided to call this fussy sewing, but it’s actually known as the “turn method” or “sew and turn method” in appliqué.

Place the fabric (or fussy cut section) right sides together with a plain fabric (like muslin) or another random cut of the same fabric.

Using a straight stitch, sew around the selected motif from the wrong side.

Cut away the excess fabric ⅛" to ¼" from the stitching line. 

NOTE: Check out our tutorials if you need help regarding how best to clip into corners and curves to maintain the shape of the motif.

Pull the back fabric away from the fussy cut fabric.

Cut a small slit in the backing fabric.

Turn the piece right side out through the slit. Push out any curves or corners and press. Now you can appliqué it onto something else! The slit in the back will be hidden between the layers.

A few other tips we’ve collected

The creative process of fussy cutting can take time; don’t try to rush it! Carefully audition fabric motifs, using your selected window method, before cutting. Sometimes you may need to step back and look at the fabric from a distance.

Matching a pattern, or using specific motif cutouts, requires more yardage. Make sure you have enough before cutting your fabric.

Often when you fussy cut a piece from a print, the grainline is compromised and the edges can become stretchy since they’re now cut on a bias. Take care in handling so as not to stretch the piece(s) out of shape.

When using a plastic template as your "window", you can black out the background around the window so you aren't distracted by adjacent motifs.

If you own or plan to purchase a quilting software program, ask if it has built-in commands for fussy cutting. Some versions do!

Visit the home décor fabric section often, as well as the discount bin, where you can find bolt ends that are perfect for fussy cutting. Sometimes, a little piece of a fabric is all you need for a fast and fabulous project.

Don’t forget, you can also fussy cut fabric along borders (or other specific areas in the print) and re-sew it into a “new” fabric or into a project seam. There are many quilt projects that specifically use border prints to create interesting blocks. We used a pretty border print to create a unique look for our Garment Covers.

Contributors

Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly

Section: 

Comments (9)

Helen Mahoney said:
Helen Mahoney's picture

Great info and great graphics! Question: where could I get the instructions to make the adorable plate holders shown in your pictures! They would be great for my lakeside patio! Thank you! 

Jane Coombs said:
Jane Coombs's picture

Nothing gives me as much satisfaction as fussy cutting. That being said, I cringe when I see plaids that do not match being worn by the masses.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:

@ Jane - We love the fussy cut! Ah well on the plaids - they just don't know what they're missin'

Claudia W said:
Claudia W's picture

Great tips! Thank you! Can you provide the pattern source for the gray and white bag in the first photo?

Caroline from France said:
Caroline from France's picture

The "sew and turn method" is a wonderful tip, thank you so much! I have, on occasion, been confronted with not having fusible interfacing to hand and this method will be very useful.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:

@Caroline - Glad we can help! There are always so many clever ways to do things. I'm sure our visitors have even more tips to add to the list.

DebS said:
DebS's picture

Very informative tutorial. I followed your instructions when making new pillows that had a similar pattern as the red table runner shown above, and they came out perfect! Fronts and backs. Everyone commented when they saw them and I even impressed myself! Love these tutorials!

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:

@DebS - Thank you ! A damask pattern is especially beautiful when fussy cut -- glad to hear your work was rewarded with such great compliments from your friends! 

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